Chaplains serve the spiritual needs of others, regardless of their faith, culture, or backgrounds. Chaplains are rooted in their own spiritual and religious traditions, and therefore are able to powerfully and compassionately provide presence and accompaniment to others, including supporting the life-affirming practices, beliefs, and rituals that strengthen them.
Historically, the word “chaplain” originates in the Latin word for ‘cloak,’ and for medieval Christians, the word recalled the story of Saint Martin. One day in medieval France, the story recounts, Martin came upon a poor man in a downpour, drenched and frigid. Martin responded by tearing his long cloak in two, giving half to the other man, so they could both share in protection from the storm and be comforted. Later, the relic of the cloak was enshrined in a chapel, and guarded by a chapel-keeper, who also assisted pious pilgrims. Religious figures associated with chapels soon also became integrated into royal and aristocratic households and became known as chaplains. The story of Martin is instructive: Rather than give his entire cloak and become himself as miserable the one he served, possibly requiring the service then of another, Martin extended, without surrendering, his own resources. Chaplains are inspired to do likewise, with the inner resources of their faiths, in the care of others. On the other hand, this history also reveals strong ties historically between chaplains and Christianity, as well as with politics and power.
Chaplaincy in the United States is rooted in the nation’s founding, as the first professional chaplains in America were employed by the colonial military in the Revolutionary War. Thus, the United States has long recognized the needs for both securing religious freedom and serving the spiritual needs of citizens, while also closely linking chaplaincy with Christianity and with institutions of power.
Serving the Spiritual Needs of All People
Pioneers in contemporary chaplaincy studies and professional practice seek to acknowledge the continuing impact of dominant religious, gendered, and racial identities upon chaplaincy, while endeavoring to cultivate greater diversity and inclusion within the profession. Another goal is to strengthen the capacity of all chaplains to work equitably and spiritually across many axes of “difference” in our nation today.
Providing for the faith needs of various religions’ adherents is federally required in the armed forces, prisons, and Veterans Administration, and is strongly valued and supported in public and private healthcare organizations, higher education institutions, disaster relief, and even among some agencies serving first responders, athletics, and corporate employees. Chaplains are the ones to meet the spiritual needs of a diverse population, in widely varied contexts. Today, there are two defining characteristics of chaplains: they serve the spiritual needs of all people, and they work outside of religious institutions.